Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Rosie's poetry

Lately, one of my guilty pleasures has been reading Rosie O'Donnell's blog, which is essentially daily poetry that she herself writes every day (it might be ghostwritten, but given the quality, I doubt it).

I'll admit the darkness in my heart: I enjoy the blog for the same reason I liked attending my high school reunion, seeing people I never much cared for humiliated. The difference is that although at my reunion I enjoyed the schadenfreude of seeing people broken down by life, I also saw lots of good people whom I wished well and with whom was glad to be reaquainted. Rosie's blog, on the other hand, is nothing but schadenfreude, since every poem I've seen is a disaster.

Besides the nastiness in my own heart, I also have a professional issue here. The nicest thing I can say about Rosie's poetry is that it is not the absolute worst I've ever seen ... but at least she seems to see some value in poetry. It is rather like Oprah's book club, which usually had lightweight choices, but offered those choices to a demographic whose "stories" otherwise were cheesy daytime soaps. In other words, didn't Oprah's book club enrich the culture from the bottom up? And might Rosie's poetry not have the same effect?

Ah, the quandry -- does Rosie take poetry seriously, or does her site encourage others to do the same? My cynical mind suggests not. Consider the evidence:

Pro -- her site contains her own poetry
-- she seems to write on average a poem every day

Con-- her site contains no poetry from other poets
-- her links go to no other poetry pages (unless you count Moby and Melissa Ethridge)
-- her poetry shows no evidence of having read other poetry, lacking rhyme, alliteration, meter, wordplay, interesting enjambments, etc.
-- she seems to think that it is more important to rattle of a poem nearly every day than revising her work.

Am I wrong to think that Rosie is not really interested in poetry at all, but is instead trying to express political messages in non-soundbyte form? If so, it is cleverness akin to Prince changing his name to an unpronouncable symbol in order to get out of a recording contract. After all, could you imagine Bill O'Reilly quoting one of these poems on the air?

If my suspicions are right, they might make Rosie clever, but they wouldn't make her website perform any service to poetry -- so unlike Oprah's book club, it coursens the culture from the bottom up. In that case, I should feel no guilt about wallowing in the badness of it.

On the other hand, maybe Rosie is simply lost. [Warning: armchair psychoanalysis approaching] One biography of her that I saw online claimed that she attended a little college, but dropped out. It is hard to tell from someone's public persona, but she does not seem to have much education of either the formal or informal varieties. On the other hand, she seems to really want to be taken seriously, which I suspect is more the cause of her politicking than any deep-rooted convictions. Maybe she feels self-conscious about her lack of education, and thinks this is a way to make up for it.

If the latter is true, perhaps I should send her one of William Thompson's syllabi, rather than laughing at her. I'd appreciate the input of others on this; please look at Rosie's site and let me know if you think she deserves scorn or credit.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Theory's Empire

An interesting post on theory from Butterflies and Wheels via Arts and Letters Daily, and particularly given the content of my previous post. Bauerlein takes the seemingly absurd position that what the study of theory needs is another anthology, just like the one to which he has contributed.

Sure, the article is a shameless plug, and it is found on the frequently disappointing Butterflies and Wheels site, but he still acknowledges the institutional nature of theory study. He seems to suggest that there was some golden age of pure theory which was corrupted when all the theorists got tenure and became department chairs, but to be honest this seems rather more like thinking Mayberry NC was ever like it was on the "Andy Griffith Show." Like a lot of cutting-edge work, theory has always had a strongly smug narcissistic quality about it, and to suggest that in the 90s "the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature" ignores that theory has always been strongly institutional -- else it would never have gained the slightest foothold in the Academy. The very nature of universities prevents them from ever studying (or observing) anything that is not institutionally oriented. French theorists gained prominence not because they were saying particularly smart or interesting things (though of course some were), but because academe happened to be institutionally headed by francophiles, in the same way that 19th-century German philologists ruled before two world wars made German politically suspect.

Though I've spent much of this post cutting on the article, I do think it worth reading, though one must keep one's grains of salt close at hand.

What's love got to do, got to do with it (Part II)

Once I began researching love, sex, and marriage in the Middle Ages, I was surprised by how little theory there is on love. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the most recent major work of any usefulness has been C.S. Lewis' "Allegory of Love," which was first published in 1936. For 70 years, academe has failed to take love seriously.

Of course, much has been alleged to be written about love, but upon examination you see two categories: The first is the Leo Buscaglia level of writing -- perhaps valuable, but intended for popular audiences. The second is serious writing that purports to be about love, but is in fact about sex or marriage.

I've been wondering why that is. My first assumption was that we don't write about love because it is hard. Take, for example, the Marxist and feminist positions (which I will shamelessly caracature here). The orthodox Marxist position seems to be that love is a construct we erect to obscure the economic exchange that marriage really is. The feminist position is the same, except that we trade the phrase "power dynamic" for "economic exchange." Both positions, while apparently courageous and de-mystifying, fail to take love seriously, accusing it of being a kind of lame excuse for bad behavior.

As I was contemplating this dearth of serious thought, though, I ran into two apparently contradictory positions in the same day. Glen Gill over at Logoi Kai Erga said that he thought that it was because love was sacred, and thus we feel that theorization of it is profane. On the same day, I read a passage in The Natural History of Love in which Ackerman claims that "love" has become an obscenity.

As with a lot of important insights, both claims are simultaneously true and false. Love is both sacred and obscene, in that love itself is sacred, but as the Marxist and feminist positions point out, it is often used as an obfuscation for the obscene. The problem is that we like the obscene, and like to partake of it, so we glorify the obscenities that "love" supposedly permits, while we refuse to talk about the sacred nature of love -- it's just not polite dialogue.

I see now that my class this fall will be seen as terribly obscene by many students, because we talk about love, not because we talk about sex. I seem to recall that it was in a Saul Bellow novel (Herzog, maybe, though I'm away from my library at the moment) that the narrator opines that when he was a boy, his parents openly talked about death, but never about sex, but that he was the opposite with his own children. Talk about sex seems to be the obscene screen we use to avoid the sacred: love, death, submission, faith, hope, unity.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

What's love got to do, got to do with it (Part I)

This fall I'll be teaching a medieval literature survey based around the theme of "Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Middle Ages." To be honest, I was not particularly interested in that subject matter when I chose it. I decided to have a theme for the course because of the inherent problems of teaching medieval lit: how do you cram an entire millennium of literature from across Europe into a 15 week semester?

The practical answer is that one cannot. Being a medievalist, it seems to me, is almost always defined by what you choose not to teach, rather than what you choose to teach. Every semester I am forced to make inexcusable cuts. In the fall, for example, I will not be teaching Chretien de Troyes, having elected to do Malory instead. When I told my dissertation director about this choice, she said, "Oh, Scott ... how could you?" How indeed? By the same token, I could not very well cut Malory. Every semester I play a zero-sum game with my syllabus, slaying beloved texts to spare others.

In order to help me make these difficult choices, I like to develop a theme (I also like themes for other reasons, but I'll not digress at the moment). The theme helps me decide to take out certain texts. For example, I'll not do Dante this semester, as the Inferno does not fit so neatly into this category. On the other hand, Abelard and Heloise are definitely in.

So, why love, sex and marriage? I originally started with three different themes I was toying with:

1) "Medieval Women Writers Who Don't Stink" -- One of the big problems for opening the medieval canon to women is that so few writings by medieval women are extant. As a result, many of the canonical women writers are not, in my judgment, very interesting. In playing this zero-sum game, I think often women writers push out far superior male writers simply in order to have "women" covered. Some of the women writers are as good or better than their male counterparts, however, but for obvious statistical reasons there are not as many. I thought I might teach a course made up only of those medieval women writers I really like (such as Marie de France and Christine de Pizan), while basically ignoring the women writers I don't like regardless of their canonicity (such as Hildegard of Bingham and Julian of Norwich).

2) "Religion in Medieval Literature" -- An easy theme that still allows me to include most extant medieval literature. It also has the virtue of being a topic that interests students. I think, too, that too many classes on religious literature fail because they take opposing and self-defeating positions. The first such position is an anti-intellectual position that suggests that we can't really discuss the religion as religion per se because faith is not a matter of reason. The second is to step so far outside religion that we treat it as an alien artifact. I would prefer to teach a class that took the medieval viewpoint seriously, i.e. that religion is not only a matter of the intellect, but ultimately it is the only worthwhile thing to which intellect can be applied.

3) "Love, Sex, and Marriage" -- Also, a nice broad theme that appeals to students. I must admit that there was a rather subjective draw for me to this theme. When I was an undergrad, I took a Shakespeare class in which on a weekly basis the professor would say, "You can't really understand this until you've fallen in love. Your assignment for this semester is to fall deeply in love." At the time, I thought it was simply a rather droll joke, but as I grew older I began to realize that not only was the professor serious, he was also right. In the end, though, I selected this theme for entirely cynical reasons: my class was scheduled at 8AM, and I figured if students were going to be asked to get up for an 8AM class, they might as well have some hope for some salacious but non-gratuitous sexual content.

Next, Part II ... the under-theorization of love

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Review of Batman Begins

"Batman Begins" is the second best superhero film of all time ... second only to "Spiderman II." Since these films were released in successive summers, it seems to me that we are probably at the high point of superhero films for this generation. Perhaps this is only the beginning of a wonderful franchise, but I doubt it.

"Batman Begins" is able to do two things simultaneously that are difficult to pull off; it both mains that gritty realistic look, and it manages to maintain a comicbook look. First, for the realism ... much of what looks good about the film is in what is not revealed. Bruce Wayne's fight scenes are awkward, dirty and chaotic -- similar to the way Branagh shot the battle sequences in Henry V. As Batman, even less is shown, so that the spectacle of thugs fighting a guy in a bat costume is replaced by flashes of image pieced together by imagination. Every piece of equipment Batman has seems to be something that you could buy on eBay -- in other words, it is not too technologically improbable.

As for the comic book look, the film leans heavily into the graphic novel tradition. The framing of the shots often evokes the frames of a graphic novel, wherein instead of acting as boxes to provide the sequence they allow a painterly space for interesting visuals. One example from early in the film is a cloud of bats that group in a particular way to form the Batman symbol. That image struck me as a suitable cover for a graphic novel. The only other films I can think of that have also done this successfully are Unbreakable and The Road to Perdition.

Glen Gill over at Logo Kai Erga is much more knowledgable about film scores than I am, so I will refrain from comment except to say that the score is performed by Hans Zimmer and is of the quality we generally would expect. Quite good.

This is hard to discuss without being too spoiler-ish, so I'll be vague. The characters are all well-acted, and I can hardly think of a single misstep. The problem is that some characters seem superfluous, particularly that of Katie Holmes. Her character (not her performance) is the weakest character in the film, I think, and she can only be called a "love interest" if the emphasis is on "interest" rather than "love." One troublesome aspect of the film is that there were so many wonderful performances that I wanted to see more of certain characters, but cannot see where much more could be added. Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Rutger Hauer and Michael Caine really knock it out of the ballpark. In fact, I'd probably pay cash money to see a film entitled "Gordon" if Gary Oldman would return to play the title role.

OK, now time to be REALLY vague ... but if you are spoiler-averse, you should probably read no further. The film keeps trying to move between moral ambiguity and moral clarity, and the movement is not really successful. Slight spoiler here: at the beginning, Bruce Wayne is trying to live a criminal life without actually becoming a criminal, so he does things that cut the definition really thin, such as stealing from his own corporation (ignoring the fact that the corporation is about to go public, and he is stealing goods abroad, so in fact he IS stealling from the future stockholders, the shippers and retailers, etc., not to mention taxes, tariffs and whatnot). In another scene (Big spoiler here) he refuses to be someone's executioner, then immediately (within seconds) sets into motion a chain of events that kills nearly everyone around him, including the guy he's ostensibly saving.

In these specific scenes, it seems to me that the filmmakers are not going for a true moral ambiguity, but are trying to keep Bruce Wayne from becoming too dark, to the point that after one altercation (spoiler) in which missiles are shot into buildings and lots of cars are rolled and crushed Alfred says, "It is a miracle no one was killed." A miracle? No, it was rather more like "The A Team" scenes in which explosions always blow villains safely onto stacks of empty boxes.

In other places, the moral ambiguity is maintained. Bruce's father is depicted at various times as a foolish idealist, the savior of Gotham, a weak coward, a humanitarian, and the unwitting tool through which Gotham will be destroyed. We are told both that he would be ashamed of Bruce and proud of Bruce, but I think the answer is unclear, as the person who ultimately claims that his father would be proud at that moment rejects what Bruce has become. As we move through the film, even the various villians have true things to teach Bruce, and he advances morally much further from what the wicked and brutal teach him than what the "good guys" from his rich boy's world teach him.

Lots of spoilers in this section here. The weapon to be used by the big bad guy doesn't make any sense. It's a microwave emitter that's supposed to be strong enough to evaporate an entire city's water supply. Fair enough ... but then why doesn't it fry (or at least dessicate) any humans nearby? Apparently, it can blow all the water from a pipe miles away, but can't even make someone standing right in front of it a little thirsty.

Also, in an effort to make sure that Wayne Enterprises is a good company built on solid ethics, we are told that much of the underground section of Wayne Manor was used as part of the Underground Railroad to "transport slaves to the North." Ummmm ... isn't Gotham already in the North? Nothing in the film indicates that the city is anything but Yankee central. It's just a stupid throwaway moment that wasn't thought out.

And what about the Batmobile? In one scene, a joke is beat into the ground that the cops keep asking for a description of the vehicle, when none is needed since it looks rather like a Humvee on steroids. Again, fair enough ... except how did Bruce get the thing into the center of the city if it was such a spectacle?

In the end, the film works. The "Goth" is put back into Gotham, with Batman being much more of a gargoyle figure. The film frequently nods to other films, and is not afraid to re-imagine scenes (such as the killing of Dr. and Mrs. Wayne) that have already been depicted in other films. It is not really in conversation with literature, but is overtly Jungian, with one villain explicitly likening his persona to Jungian archetypes. The film is practically drenched in Jung, with characters playing archetypal roles both in their "real" lives and as their alter egos. In fact, Bruce Wayne from early in the film appears to die out, and so the discussion later in the film over which is the mask (Batman or Bruce) is ultimately irrelevant -- BOTH are masks, and Wayne ceases to have a non-masked identity.

In this way, "Batman Begins" is the antithesis of "Spiderman II." Peter Parker is able to maintain his innocence because he is able to reconcile both his Peter identity and his Spiderman identity, symbolized in the love of both by Maryjane. Wayne, on the other hand, becomes a darker, more dangerous character because he is ultimately unable to reconcile Bruce and Batman, and must instead slough off any "real" identity, instead alternating between his two masks, (spoiler) both of which are rejected by Rachel in hopes that the slain "real" identity is just dormant and will return.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Build your own Bayeux

A colleague sent around this link today, to a wonderful site that allows you to build your own tapestry depicting some medieval event, based on images in the Bayeux tapestry.


Glenn Reynolds over at Instapundit is dredging up the Joe Biden plagiarism story and repeating his defense of Biden.

The whole thing is absurd on two levels. The obvious is that he bemoans that we'll be hearing more of the plagiarism story ... yet he seems to be the one bringing it up.

The more troubling to me professionally is that Reynolds, a law professor at University of Tennessee, is defending plagiarism by someone who failed a law course for plagiarism when Biden lifted several pages with a single footnote. Biden's lame excuse regarding his plagiarism was that he was a freshman law student, so he didn't know better.

Calling himself a "freshman" is misleading. Law school is graduate/professional school. In other words, you need to have a degree already in order to apply. Biden had already had four years of undergraduate school. For him to claim ignorance suggests that he was the densest student in University of Delaware history (U of D was his undergrad).

Does Reynolds really want to be in the position of publically trumpeting his laissez-faire attitude about plagiarism? If I were a student in his class, I might be tempted to see that as an invitation to cheat without fear of consequences.

On Hollywulf

Dr. Gill over at Logoi Kai Erga has a post about the new Beowulf film set for release in 2007. All I have to say in response is that the bar has been set pretty low by the 1999 Christopher Lambert Beowulf.

So. As for Heaneywulf, it is an interesting translation, and might be considered accurate if Beowulf had tripped over his shillelagh as he was watching a leprechaun swing at a fairy because he was drunk and fighting having had too much Guinness on his way to find his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In other words, the Scandinavian Geats and Danes come off as Irish. Perhaps I should do an American translation, in which Beowulf dons his bluejeans and rides his Harley to Heorot Stadium where he plugs Grendel with his Winchester rifle.

In other words, read Heaneywulf to read Irish poetry, and read Liuzza's Beowulf to read Anglo-Saxon poetry.

In a side note, I notice today that Amazon has a combo deal on buying Liuzza's Beowulf and Sandars' Gilgamesh together -- very cool. Perhaps Heaney should do a translation of Gilgamesh? "So. I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. This lad was brilliant! He knew all the countries of the world -- and not just the bloody English. He was wise, he saw mysteries, he new his way around a pub, and he used to tell wild tales of the old days. When the Virgin Mary herself created him, she gave him a perfect body: bright red hair and big knotted muscles. And fight? Aye, that he could lad -- against him everyone else was bollocks!"

(apologies to Pat Friend for stealing his outrageous Irish stereotypes)

Why we need art

One mystery to me, personally, is that the average person does not understand that art is essential for humans. I'm not surprised that people don't understand WHY art is so important -- indeed, I myself do not really -- but simply that people think art is a frivolous option, something to while away our free moments.

To keep this from being too much of a cornpone idea, I'll use music as my artistic example, rather than literature.

Every culture has music. This is not to say that most cultures have music, or that nearly every culture except for some small group in the rainforest or in the distant past has had music. What I mean to say is at the same time audacious, undeniable, and painfully obvious: every culture has music (and other art). The specifics of the types of music and instruments differ from culture to culture, yet all still have music. Humanity does not seem able to exist without music.

Even the deaf enjoy music. Of course, everyone knows of Beethoven's compositions after going deaf, but some might argue that he was hearing the music in his mind's ear, which is likely enough to be true. The counter-example is that people who have been profoundly deaf from birth also enjoy music; deaf teens, for example, will sometimes hold dances with the music very loud, and the bassline very strong, so that they can "hear" the music through the vibrations in the floor. I've seen one such dance, and the power of the bass in the air rattled my bones and sent me quickly out the door.

In fact, while humans cannot seem to exist in groups without music, they are not the only such animal. Take neanderthals, for example, who we know made musical instruments. Neanderthals are not only not true homo sapiens, but some recent genetic research suggests that they are not even very closely related to us (with a tree dweller being the closest common ancestor). Their oral structure made human-level speech impossible. Yet they too made music. I like to imagine that they had little bands of bone flute players.

Steven Pinker claims that music is an evolutionary accident that does not promote the survival the the species, famously calling it "auditory cheesecake." And yet we can't seem to survive without it. Music seems to be in the category of sex for survivability, i.e. individuals can survive without having sex, but the species cannot. Individuals can survive without music, but the species cannot. Why they cannot, I do not really understand, yet there it is.

Obviously, I'm trying to make the same claim for other forms of art (such as literature). Every culture has poetry, for example, or visual art such as painting or sculpture. We ignore the importance of art at our own peril.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Father's Day

If we live in such a patriarchal society, why is it that Father's Day is not a holiday of greater or equal magnitude to Mother's Day? In other words, why does Mother's Day have the greatest telephone traffic of the year, and why is it impossible to get a seat in a restaurant on Mother's Day but quite easy on Father's Day (excepting steak houses)?

I think it probably has to do with how we conceive the gender roles of the father and the mother. Fathers are stern, judging disciplinarians, to be sure, but they are also stoic. The stoic dad isn't supposed to be interested in receiving praise from his children. If the father cuts half of his hand off with a circular saw, he's just supposed to put the severed part in his beer cooler to preserve it, wrap up the bloody stump in oil rags and duct tape, and only head to the hospital after he finishes installing the new deck.

[Of course, this stoicism only applies to bleeding wounds and injuries. Dads are allowed to be big babies if they get ill. Moms are the other way around]

Compare the stoic dad to this axiom about mothers: "If Mama ain't happy, ain't no one happy." Mothers react better to such praise because they expect it as naturally due them. Fathers aren't quite sure what all the fuss is about, but aren't going to complain if they get a new toy.

So, in honor of Father's Day and stoicism, let me relate an anecdote about my own father that doesn't involve anything mushy or any crying or any hugging -- in other words, let me tell you an anecdote that dads can actually enjoy reading without squirming uncomfortably:

When I was about 16 years old, I was in an argument with my father in our basement. We had a finished basement that he had done himself, and so most of the interior walls were chalkboard. I was leaning back against a wall trying to look disdainful, and my father was facing me obviously trying not to send me to a well-deserved early grave. I smarted off to him one too many times, and in an effort not to kill me, he punched the wall next to my head. His hand went through the wall and got stuck. I realized that I had gone too far, and beat a hasty retreat.

In a follow-up story that is part of family lore (I had gone off to college when this second part happened), one time my younger and stupider brother was in a similar argument with my father. Like a fool, he actually took a swing at Dad. Dad, knowing that my brother would never survive the pummeling he deserved, again punched the wall. This time, however, his hand went through only partially, and struck one of two load-bearing metal beams in the basement. Dad's response was the only non-stoic one allowed fathers: a string of curses.

So here's to Dad, Toppler of Walls, Striker of Beams, Destroyer of Boards, Utterer of Curses! We praise him for withholding the full force of his wrath!

Techie problems

I have been planning to blog for the last two days on the essential nature of art (i.e., that art serves an essential function, not what I think the fundamental nature of art is), but every time I log in I find that my password does not work. I use the "recover password" option and am able to change it, yet the next time I log in again, same problem.

At first, I assumed it was my error (such as leaving the caps lock down when entering the password, or some other simple slip of keystroke), but as it seems to have happened three times in a row, I'm wondering if perhaps there isn't some other technical problem, or worse yet some hacker. If any readers have experience with this problem, please let me know.

Just in case this is a prankster hacker problem, I want to reserve the right to disavow subsequent wacky posts in the near future. If readers come here to find that I have made vulgar statements regarding my own heritage (or that of my students, colleagues, or friends), please join me in cursing said prankster.

Friday, June 17, 2005

For Blooms-Boxing-Day

Yesterday was Bloomsday, the day that people celebrate James Joyce generally and Ulysses specifically. I had planned to let it go by unmentioned, since I don't find much in either worthy of celebration.

I was reminded this morning, however, of a famous story (possibly apocryphal) about Joyce that always interests textual scholars:

"Once or twice Joyce dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to Samuel Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn't hear. Joyce said, 'Come in,' and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, 'What's that "Come in"?' 'Yes, you said that,' said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said 'Let it stand.'" (James Joyce, Richard Ellmann)

So much for the romantic vision of the author as an individual, a great mind working in a high and lonely place. Once again, we see that writing as collaborative. Joyce is dictating, using Beckett as a sort of on-the-fly editor. An interruption creates an error, which Joyce then accepts as an "authorized" bit of the text. In other words, for one moment at least, we have no author, just the editorial collaboration between Joyce and Beckett.

Nonetheless, we still see the existence of "Bloomsday." OK, now I know that Bloomsday isn't so much a literary event as an excuse for a pub crawl (which explains why we don't see much in the way of pilgrimages to Canterbury Cathedral on the anniversary of Chaucer's death), but some people take this very seriously. Bloomsday is an odd anachronism, a celebration of an author and his text as such, during an era in which the very idea that author or text exists is out of vogue. How can this be?

I think it is because Joyce is not so much an author as a literary celebrity. Once Ulysses had been accurately described as "unreadable," simply running one's eyes across the page became an accomplishment. Anyone who can read English can participate -- no particular knowledge of Homer, or Dublin, or literature is necessary. If you can identify the major characters (Leopold Bloom) and the major plot points (stops in Dublin), you can be part of a literary in-crowd.

Art has always had this empathetic impulse, probably essential for catharsis, for the readers/audience to identify with the characters. On the pop culture level, Nancy Drew is for girls and the Hardy Boys for boys not because the mysteries and characters are in some way different, but because the point of gender similarity makes it easier for children to place themselves in the position of the character. Art does not mirror life; life tries to mirror art. We don't just want to read narratives, we want to be in them. The popularity of "reality TV" is contingent on believing that the people on the show are "like us," and that we could, at any moment, be absorbed into the story.

Bloomsday is not about the book, I think, but more about indulging our empathetic impulse. In this case, however, the empathy moves beyond the character. We understand that in some ways Bloom is another version of Joyce himself, even to the degree that June 16th was a day of some significance to Joyce. Participants get to use the transitive property of equality (if I recall my algebra):

If A=B
and B=C,
then A=C

In this case,

If I go on Bloom's journey,
and Bloom is based on Joyce,
then I am Joyce!

Bloomsday is not really a celebration of the text -- it is an attempt to identify AS (not with) the author. Given the proverbial "unreadability" of Joyce, he makes a good candidate for this treatment, since in the backs of their minds many readers must be thinking, "Pfft! I could write this," failing to realize how difficult producing such prose would be (including knowing which accidental come ins to retain, and which to omit). Bloomsday might be a bit more sophisticated, but it is the same as putting one's own face in a cardboard cutout of a famous figure. For one day, you too can be James Joyce.

Thanks, Steven

Eighteen hours into the blog, and already got my first link. Thanks for the nod to fellow Trojan professor Steven Taylor over at Poliblog.

Incidentally, a couple of weeks ago I ran into Dr. Taylor at a hardware store. He greeted me by name, and I gave him a cursory "hi." My brother-in-law asked who that was, and I had to confess that I hurried past him because I couldn't remember his proper name and could only remember him as "Poliblog." I suppose I'll deserve it if he refers to me as the Wordhoarder in some faculty meeting.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


The first post is, I suppose, the place to reveal the origins and purposes of a blog.

I created this blog at the promptings of my colleague Glen R. Gill, who had himself started his own blog. I was, truth be told, only vaguely interested in the idea; I saw more potential ill consequences than good. I was won over, however, when he made the argument that all professors should be public intellectuals.

The term "public intellectual" is often abused through misapplication; as often as not, it is applied to people who are public figures but who are not intellectuals, or to people who are intellectuals but make no intellectual appeal in their public figure. For the most part, the term "public intellectual" is, I'm sorry to say, someone who occasionally uses big words on a cable news outlet. The distinction between a pundit and a public intellectual is ... er... indistinct.

This conflation is really unfortunate, because I set the bar pretty low for someone to be a public intellectual. First, as for being public, all I require is some standing beyond one's immediate circle of friends and colleagues. In the case of professors, students do not count -- I consider them part of a professor's immediate circle. I don't think one has to be on television, or have any national standing. The "public" can be a rather small audience, just so long as it is affected in some way.

As for "intellectual," I set that bar rather lower than most. Sometimes in common parlance, we use the word "intellectual" to imply a certain set of leftist beliefs along with a snooty attitude. While neither leftist beliefs nor snootiness are disqualifiers, they do not an intellectual make. If we use the term that restrictively, figures like Aleksandr Solzhennitsyn could not be considered public intellectuals. Furthermore, no one before the modern era (i.e. before our current ideas of "right" and "left" existed) could be a public intellectual, which would leave out Homer, Socrates, Augustine, Bede, Abelard, Christine de Pisan, etc. For me, the word "intellectual" simply means someone concerned with the life of the mind, the nuos ("mind" or "spirit"). It is unnecessary (though of course, extremely helpful) for an intellectual to be well-educated, cultured, articulate, artistic, or even literate. In every case I can think of, an intellectual has at least one of these qualities. For example, Caedmon seems to have lacked all these qualities except for being thoughtful and artistic, yet he was certainly one of the most prominent public intellectuals in Anglo-Saxon England, even though such a term did not yet exist.

So, for me, a public intellectual is simply someone who is openly concerned with the life of the mind, and tries to affect the nuos of those around them while edifying their own in that same public discourse. Of course, there are many poseurs who are less concerned with then nuos than they are with appearing to be concerned with the nuos -- walk into any coffeeshop and you'll see at least one or two of these -- but we'll not let those people spoil it for the rest of us.

Dr. Gill is right -- ideally, all professors should be public intellectuals, trying to advance intellectual discourse outside the realm of scholarly journals and the classroom. Herein I hope to post my thoughts and ideas in their half-baked form. I do this both to instruct and learn. Perhaps by seeing my ideas evolve -- all the false starts, backtracks over logical fallacies, mental revisions, and just plain contraditions -- others might see a model of how one man's nuos grapples with the world around him. I hope that comments by readers and links from other bloggers will create an intellectual discourse that further teaches me. As Chaucer said, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”